The Kilesas – The five obstacles (Pañca Nīvaranāni)

Kilesas / Kleshas

The Kilesas [Pali.] / Kleshas [Skt.], the five obstacles, are unhelpful mental patterns and obstacles, entangling mental formations and reactive states, that hinder, blind, obscure or impede the Path of progress towards true Refuge. They can be the cause of reactivity, reinforcing unhelpful and unwholesome views and beliefs; they also immediately hinder practice, obstructing and obscuring the arising of insight and wisdom. They can also have superficial yet protective qualities. There exists through them a source of Refuge that is valid and authentic.

In the Kilesas, through the five obstacles, we can come to recognise and know ourselves, our conditioning, beliefs, views and responses to life. We can develop knowledge of what hinders and what helps foster Refuge and compassion. When experienced through mindfulness, the Kilesas are filled with insights, awareness, love and understanding into our shared humanity and the innate Buddha nature that exists within us all. When we become entangled in the Kilesas, obstacles that bind and limit our most profound compassionate nature, we can become bound and attached to them; they can cycle and build into unhelpful states of being that persist (Samyojanam), cutting off or closing in on our minds making it challenging to see the Dhamma, the harmony, balance, and truths of nature and reality. Being bound within these obscuring states can lead to confusion and frustrations that overflow into anger, jealousy, hatred and other reactive states that further inhibit compassionate being. As we learn to work with these obstacles within us through mindfulness, we open the door to calm, clarity, composed, clear thought, and increasingly mindful and compassionate responses.

A central feature of training and practice with the five obstacles is the willingness to meet and become familiar with the arising and passing away of the Kilesas and to work with these obstacles, applying meditative and post-meditative antidotes to reduce and prevent their future occurrence. Again, the Kilesas are natural states that cause suffering; they are not inherently wrong, and they can veil or reveal opportunities for deeper insights into the nature of life, suffering, compassion and Refuge. They are workable. Through practice and training, we can clear, clean and polish the lens of the mind to directly experience knowledge of the Dhamma, of life’s intelligence.

The five obstacles/hindrances (Pañca Nīvaranāni)

1. Desire (kāmacchanda). Refers to the persistent wanting and craving, chasing and pursuing personal desires driven by sensuality, desires stimulated through the senses. The desire for something to happen, longing to connect, feel and be. The desire to see and feel ourselves in the world, to reinforce our individual identity, and a wholly personal self-view or self-affirming perspective. A personal passion for permanency and everlastingness, thinking that our physical life and body belong solely to us. The inner discursive chatter and verbalising that propels us from one desire to the next. The wanting for more and for less, for simplicity, comfort, pleasure, happiness, and joy. All in an attempt to avoid suffering and gain refuge. The relentless passion for the impossible, unattainable fulfilment. We desire deeply and consistently. Its remedy – Ekaggata, the tranquillity of wholeness, unitary or unification of mind. (Seek further teaching).

2. Ill-will (vȳapada). Ill will often presents as aversion, judgment, fear, disgust, anger, hatred, jealousy, resentment, boredom, frustration, and annoyance. We can lose our composure when our physical, emotional, and mental desires are unmet. Our mindfulness can become disrupted, obscuring our ability to perceive reality clearly, leading to conflicting inner states and a perplexed mind. Tension, aversion, and aggression arise and build as we move into the fear of unknowing and uncertainty. When we stop long enough to recognise, experience and work mindfully with our suffering, we can begin to stop chasing our desires, even subtly, and often at first, this happens below conscious awareness; the mind initially can become bored or resistant and attempts repeatedly to throw us back into habituated patterns and cycles of desire, creating a feedback loop, perpetually binding us to suffering. Not seeing these cycles, just as recognising and working with these unfolding cycles, is a challenging process that can cause much frustration, annoyance, anger, aversion, and aggression that advances ill will. We begin to truly meet the depth of our relationship with suffering through the obstacle of ill will. Its remedy – Piti, finding joy in life, and a joy for life. (Seek teaching).

3. Sloth and torpor (thīna-middha). Characterised by states of dullness, inertia, sluggishness, fogginess, a lack or loss of cognitive and physical energy and vitality of the mind and body energies. These obstacles can become noticeable predominant conditions manifesting in inactivity, idleness, dormancy, disinterest, numbness, apathy, or an inability or unwillingness to change, and are often accompanied by an absence of introspection, extrospection, awareness, analysis or limited perception. Our mental outlook can become confined by excessive self-centric orientation or compounded by immoderate self-critical analysis and constant discouragement. As a consequence of intricate interlocked psychological cycling, the persistent oscillating and the ensuring anxieties triggered by the push and pull of conflicting forces spinning between our unmet desires and unfulfilling isolation dissipates energy and is further consumed by the consequent reactivities of annoyance, frustrations, anger, aversion and ill-will. Holding and carrying these ongoing tensions is exhaustive. The effort overwhelms the mind and body, and life vitality and energy are drawn down, depleted and lost. Obduracy is often associated with this obstacle. There can develop a stubborn refusal to change or a persistence in unwholesome or unhelpful acts of body, speech and mind. A strong determination to remain fixed, unyielding and inflexible by principle, belief, fear, experience, trauma, misperception, or cultural and societal norms, and the mind becomes immutable and closed to reason or logic. Judgements and opinions remain viewed via a self-referencing or self-identification orientation only, and complacency or ensuing hardening of feelings can take hold. Maintaining an unreasonable refusal to change, adapt or adopt new ways of thinking or being. Its remedy – Vitakka, applied thought, inquiry, investigation. (Seek teaching).

4. Restlessness and remorse (uddhacca-kukkucca). Exhibiting agitated states of tension, nervousness, worry, and anxiety; unsettled and perturbed conditions of the mind and body. Within the teachings of Buddhadhamma, the cause is linked back to unwholesomeness, unethical, immoral, harmful thoughts and activities, hostile tendencies and desires for retaliation and retribution that can result due to the obstacles of ill will, obduracy, sloth and torpor. These factors are broad and conditioned. We may have yet to cultivate sufficient mindfulness to calm, compose and regulate the mind-body system or have developed foundational ethics by which to live. We may have experienced personal harm or be grappling with lost Refuge. We may have learned conditioning that comprises amoral or immoral principles and views. The mind can brood, becoming bound by worry and concern, dwelling in sadness, suspicion, regrets and uncomfortableness. In the absence of suitable guiding ways for working with our suffering and difficulties, or when we lack confidence and trust in the process and course of training and practice or the wisdom of others, this can leave us feeling concerned and agitated, restless for help, healing and resolve, lapsing into regret and remorse of experience. Turmoil can ensue in the mind-body. Mental and physical energies get rattled and untethered, and we experience unsettledness, restlessness or remorse. We can become caught up in our desire to overcome or eliminate these experiences, our past unwholesomeness or our present unhealthy attitudes and responses to life. We may excessively and compulsively analyse, critique, judge or criticise ourselves, our practice, and our Path unnecessarily. The turmoil of desire, anger, harsh judgment, depletion and exhaustion continue pulling at and entangling us deeper. We may form ideas, assumptions or suppositions and may brood over or regret what we may have done or caused to happen. The mind becomes increasingly restless, and worry builds up. In practice, we look to meet our struggles and difficulties honestly, without trying to overcome, escape or avoid our sufferings and difficulties quickly. When we are present, honest, and willingly engaged in learning the craft of practice, building familiarity with how to acknowledge, accept, and befriend reality and work with our grief, sorrow, despair and anguish over the lifespan, we can begin to settle in more comfortably, with greater ease and contentment for the longer haul. Its remedy – Sukha, the sensations of mental and physical ease, restfulness, calm, spiritual happiness, spiritual contentment. (Seek teaching).

5. Sceptical doubt (vicikicchā). A state of doubt, unsurety, mistrust, lost trust or belief that can lead to excessive scepticism, closed-mindedness and lost conviction. It can accumulate into depressive doubt and paralysis, feelings of being stuck in doubt, as the mind becomes perplexed. There can be doubt in the fundamental teaching principles and practices, thinking they are incorrect, false or corrupted. There can be doubt and unsurety whether this is a way to Refuge, or we may doubt the possibilities and truth of Refuge. There can be a belief that something in life is wrong as there is too much suffering. We may believe we should feel better by now with all the effort we are putting in. We may adopt a cynical outlook or think that all this study, practice, and teaching is too tricky, complex and challenging and that the happiness, health, satisfaction and security we sought don’t exist. We can doubt our feelings, intuition, and even our own mindfulness and sanity. Doubt can encapsulate both self-doubt, other doubt and doubt of life intelligence. Doubt in the dhamma teachings and the teachers may arise. There can be distrust and suspicion in the Path or unsound or misconceived questioning of the validity of the teachings or the spiritual Path. There can be doubt whether thoughts and feelings of doubt or questioning the teachings and experiences are okay, natural, valid, or accurate. We can experience feelings of doubt in humanity’s capacity for insight, care and the wisdom of compassion. The mind can become entrapped by doubt, circling, spiralling, and feeding feedback loops that lead to further doubt and scepticism. Our mindfulness can become diminished, overpowered and clouded by doubt, suspicion, scepticism, distrust, disbelief and denial, perpetuating the cycle of suffering as we hold onto fixed or outdated beliefs, inaccurate views, misunderstandings and misinterpretations of reality. We continue to desire to avoid the uncomfortableness of our doubt and reinforce false Refuge. Its remedy – Vicāra, sustained mindful thought and investigation of dhammas, the arising of questions and consistency of comprehensive examination, helping to discern the specifics, intricacies and fine details. (Seek teaching).

When reading through these obstacles and hindrances, we understand that the Path of practice is complex, challenging and not without risk and the need for caution. There is the need for a constant reminder that these states are natural aspects of the human experience and not inherently wrong or bad, yet not without consequences, especially when they override good mental, physical and social health and well-being. These obstacles also do not exist solely in isolation from each other. They can intertwine and feed into each other, compounding. The first efforts of Path and practice are to cultivate awareness of the obstacles grounded within a firm foundation in mindfulness, a kind and caring attitude, and a capacity to identify, name and regulate mind activity, calming associated body energies, and working on the obstacles in relationship with ordinary worldly life, day to day living.

What is the risk of not practising? When the Kilesas start to accumulate, layering and building up, binding and entangling together, excessive, unhelpful heightened states of mind and being can emerge that can be deeply challenging to navigate and work with and may necessitate professional psychological or psychiatric support services. It is important to note that we are not seeking or aiming for perfection or to eliminate these Kilesas. Instead, we are working towards increasingly being aware to their presence within us. Getting to know how they function, the mental and physical processes, sensations and effects involved, their imprint on us and their impact on others and the world we share in. We are cultivating an ability to meet, familiarise ourselves, and engage with the Kilesas mindfully. When taking the Kilesas into mindfulness practice or contemplation, ask, what are their benefits? What wisdom do they convey? How does working with and through the Kilesas contribute to personal and collective health, peace and Refuge?

In practice, we are working with the Kilesas to lessen and transform the unhelpful cycles and habits that contribute to suffering and, through practice, encourage the processes, patterns and routines that cultivate Sukha (beneficial, healing states). 

By Genyen – Ian Hackett – Tig-Le House, Margaret River, Western Australia

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00